Kate was the first woman in New Zealand to gain a university degree and the first in the British Empire with a BA, so demonstrating women’s intellectual capability. She helped pioneer women’s education with her leadership in the developing of two girls’ schools.
Born in 1857 in Berkshire, England, Kate had one brother and three sisters. Her father, a Baptist minister, was appointed to accompany emigrants to NZ on the Matilda Wattenbach in May 1862. The family settled in Albertland near Wellsford, later moving to Auckland.
At the time, there was no girls’ high school, so Kate and her sister Lilian were taught by their father, Samuel, a University of London graduate. Samuel later gained permission for Kate to study in the top class at Auckland College and Grammar School, the only girl. For propriety, Kate entered rooms with downcast eyes and rarely spoke to the boys.
After completing school, Kate wanted to go to university, and applied in a letter to the chancellor, giving her age and explaining that she had received instruction and good exam marks at Auckland Grammar School. She was accepted with no comment and studied Latin and Mathematics.
Kate’s graduation with a Bachelor of Arts, on 11 July 1877, marked the first woman graduating with a degree in NZ, and the first woman in the Empire with an Arts degree. It was an expansive occasion attended by nearly 1000 people. The Bishop of Auckland, WG Cowie, presented her with a white camellia to represent her ‘unpretending excellence’. The New Zealand Herald proclaimed ‘Let us hear no more of the intellectual inferiority of women.’ A letter of congratulation even came from Queen Victoria.
 MacDonald, Penfold, and Williams, The Book of New Zealand Women, p. 202
Kate became the first assistant at the fairly new Christchurch Girls’ High School. While teaching she started work on her Master of Arts at Canterbury College, part of the University of New Zealand. Her sister Lilian studied too and they both graduated Master of Arts in 1882.
The next year, Kate became the first principal of the brand-new Nelson College for Girls. The principal of the boys’ school wrongly thought the girls’ school would not last. But with Kate’s commitment to success, girls came from all over the country. There were 118 students by midyear, while the boys’ college only had a roll of 102!Kate had a principal’s administrative work, but also h er teaching timetable was full. She taught English grammar and literature, science, Latin, mathematics, singing, geography, club swinging and coaching senior girls for university scholarships. She supervised the boarding hostel initially, too.
She led the school for seven foundational years that were hugely beneficial and formative to the school. This included a system of certificates to praise girls for conscientious effort. Not only did pupils like and respect Kate, they also passed their exams.
Kate’s sister Lilian was also on staff in Nelson. As a side project, they edited together their father’s sermons for publication.
In 1890 on her 33rd birthday, only four months after meeting him, Kate married a Welsh Congregational minister, William Evans. She planned to continue teaching but resigned two months later—probably because she was pregnant. The couple eventually had three sons.
Kate sometimes preached in her husband’s church in Nelson, but in 1893 they moved to Mt Victoria in Wellington, where William worked doing charitable and philanthropic work, in particular, the Forward movement for adult education. Kate became the breadwinner, running a private girls’ school at secondary level in the morning, and coaching adult students in the evening. She also gave lectures for the Forward movement and frequently took on high level educational work as an examiner for University Entrance from 1891 until 1929. For two years during World War 1 Kate worked in the Education Department.
When her husband became the paid minister of Newtown Congregational Church in 1904, Kate taught less but she kept coaching until 1912. She taught in Sunday School, sang in the choir, and even learned to play the organ.
After her husband’s death in 1921, Kate lived in Wellington until 1932, when she moved to live with her second son, Elwyn, and his family in Dunedin until her death on 6 May 1935.
Promoting Women’s Education
As part of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Kate led suffrage meetings and made speeches for the cause. Her positions included:
- Member of Nelson branch;
- WCTU dominion recording secretary 1916-20 and 22-30;
- President Miramar branch;
- Associate editor of the union’s journal, the White Ribbon.
Kate was also at times:
- In the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children; either president or vice president of the Wellington branch
- Member of the Newtown school committee from 1897 to about 1927
- League of Nations Union of New Zealand dominion secretary
At the Golden Jubilee of Canterbury College in 1923 she headed the women graduates’ section of the procession through the streets of Christchurch.
In Easter 1933, although frail, she travelled from Dunedin to attend the golden jubilee of Nelson College for Girls. Until her last days she continued to help with the mailings-out of the White Ribbon.
Kate’s attitudes supported both women in the home and in society and academia. She was devoted to her family but not interested in housework, employing staff for that. Perhaps she had been challenged because of that for she is known to have declared: ‘Thousands of university women are proving by their lives that it has not unfitted them for home-making, the noblest sphere of women’s work.’
The University of Auckland has honoured Kate by keeping a framed display copy of her degree certificate and naming an architecturally award-winning building after her, the Kate Edger Information Commons.
Beryl Hughes. ‘Edger, Kate Milligan’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2e3/edger-kate-milligan (accessed 27 January 2021).